Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth
The Grange Festival, Hampshire. 16 June 2018
Handel’s Agrippina was first performed in 1709 during the Venice Carnival when he was just 23. It was towards the end of his three-year stay in Venice and used a considerable amount of borrowed material from Handel and other composers. It was an immediate success, with a further 26 performances, but was not revived again until modern times. It is now considered his first major operatic success. With its story of intrigue, rivalry, and deception in historic Rome, Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto for Agrippina is said to reflect his own political rivalry with Pope Clement XI. The plot tells of Agrippina’s ruthless plan to usurp her husband Emperor Claudius and place her son, the youthful Nerone, on the throne. The sexually provocative Poppea joins in the fray in a complex plan to undo Agrippina’ plot, not least in her attempts to discredit Ottone, who Claudius wants to create Emperor as a reward for saving his life. It certainly had many political and cultural undertones at the time, and perhaps still does today.
Although perhaps not quite reaching the social cachet of Glyndebourne or Garsington, the opera season at Iford Manor is always a delight, both for the setting and the standard of the music. A few miles south-east of Bath, the manor house is surrounded by the famous Peto garden, with an Italian cloister that is turned into a delightfully intimate opera house for the season. Unlike their companion’s ‘posh frocks and picnic’ focussed events, the dress code is ‘smart casual’ and picnicking opportunities come before, rather than during the opera, with a welcome coffee and biscuits filling the 20 minute interval. All this encourages a welcome focus on the music, rather than the surrounding social razzmatazz.
This year’s early music opera was Handel’s wonderful Agrippina, one of his most approachable operas despite, or perhaps because of, having been written when Handel was around 24, at the end of his enormously productive three years in Italy. This period produced some of his finest music, as reflected in the fact that Agrippina borrows extensively from Handel’s previous works – and, in turn, many extracts were later borrowed for later works. Continue reading